Processor of Year candidates down to 3: Hoffer, Rodon, DeKalb

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AKRON, OHIO (Jan. 7, 4:20 p.m. ET) — Three custom molders — injection molders Hoffer Plastics Corp. and Rodon Group LLC and DeKalb Molded Plastics Co., which does both structural foam and injection — are the finalists for Plastics News’  Processor of the Year Award.

A team of judges from the PN editorial department in Akron picked the finalists.

DeKalb is based in Butler, Ind. Hoffer hails from South Elgin, Ill. Rodon, a custom molder also known for K’Nex construction toys, is in Hatfield, Pa. Rodon was a finalist last year for the award.

The winner will be announced March 5 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa, Fla. The finalists and winner will be honored at a reception, and the next morning, executives from each finalist company will hold a best practices panel discussion.

PN will profile the Processor of the Year winner in the March 11 issue.

Judges evaluated all candidates on seven criteria: financial performance, quality, customer relations, employee relations, environmental performance, industry/public service and technological innovation.

Last year’s Processor of the Year was Steinwall Inc., a custom injection molder in Coon Rapids, Mich.

Senior reporter Bill Bregar, who coordinates the Processor of the Year Award, will visit all three finalists.

Here is a look at those companies, in alphabetical order.

DeKalb Molded Plastics

The 130-employee DeKalb Molded does it all: molding, decorating and even final assembly and warehousing for some customers. It’s a one-stop shop.

Sales have increased 15 percent a year the past two years, to $22 million in 2012. DeKalb has been consistently profitable, even during the recession, when sales sank to $10.8 million.

The secret is one of DeKalb Molded’s strengths: excellent day-to-day cash management and attention to detail. Good inventory management, aided by a new IQMS system installed in early 2012, “has allowed DeKalb to carry lower levels of raw material and component inventory,” according to the company’s submission. The processor uses RJG in-mold sensors to make precise parts.

Markets include medical housings, material handling, safety products and recreation products.

By paying its bills early, DeKalb takes advantage of vendor discounts, racking up more than $30,000 in savings in 2012. The goal: $50,000. And officials wanted to pay off DeKalb’s operating line of credit by the end of the year.

DeKalb took a team approach to surviving the recession. Employees, and good planning, also helped DeKalb bounce back from a fire on Oct. 20, 2011.

President Rick Walters said the fire was big, but it was mostly limited to finished goods and other material on the outside of the building. Damage was limited to the back corner of building, with some water damage to the plant. But DeKalb’s disaster recovery plan kicked in, and company officials met off-site to contact customers and vendors immediately.

Walters got the call at 1:30 a.m. “We had contractors on the ground next morning,” he said.

DeKalb Molded Plastics scored well in all seven criteria, especially in employee relations, customer relations, and industry and public service.

Walters, a down-to-earth veteran of DeKalb Molded, sets the tone. He shares a breakfast, lunch or dinner with every employee on his or her anniversary date — off-site at a restaurant. A safety committee meets monthly. Every quarter, on all three shifts, management meets with shop-floor employees for a profit-sharing and state-of-the-company report.

DeKalb leaders have made a strong commitment to hiring veterans. About one-fourth of the 35 newly hired workers in 2012 are veterans. A DeKalb molding press operator, Skylar Jacquay, a member of the National Guard, nominated his company for an Above and Beyond Award. In December, Walters said, the company announced it will make up the difference in pay when veterans go away for training or deployment.

DeKalb is a big player in Butler, a town of 2,600 in the northeastern corner of Indiana. After the fire, DeKalb hosted a thank-you dinner for police and firefighters. Now, Walters said, the company will do that every year, as a way to honor all emergency responders with a meal and a gift card.

Human resources director Kassy Davis spends a lot of time in area schools, helping with career guidance. The company is a big supporter of local charities, especially Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In the customer relations area, DeKalb employees have worked hard to develop a reputation for their fast response and extra effort. They communicate well. “They drive their business on customer satisfaction,” said one customer. Said another: “Not very often do we have a supplier come to us with a proposed solution to an issue. Thanks for taking an interest in our product to make it better.”

DeKalb Molded won a PN Excellence Award for customer relations two years ago.

DeKalb received five nominations for the award, from: Rick Mann of supplier KibbeChem Inc.; Tom Meisels, president of Toronto toolmaker FGL Precision Works Inc.; Bradley Morgan, president and CEO of Plastic Solutions, a resin distributor in Milton, Ga.; Richard Kemp, vice president of materials at Dallas-based Trinity Highway Products LLC; and Brian Bowman, DeKalb’s accountant from Fort Wayne, Ind.

Hoffer Plastics Corp.

As it turns 60 years old this coming March, Hoffer Plastics has a proud history that begins with Robert A. Hoffer Sr., a groundbreaking entrepreneur who developed a new business structure and set new highs for community and industry involvement.

Under the current president and Robert’s son, William Hoffer, the company continues to be a leading custom injection molder.

Hoffer Plastics generated about $75 million in 2012 sales and has been profitable, even during the recession when sales declined. The company is debt-free and stable, making it the only manufacturer in the Elgin area to hire in early 2010, when local unemployment hovered at 15 percent.

Hoffer runs 110 injection molding presses from 35-600 tons in clamping force.

Hoffer in South Elgin employs about 350 people — 53 of them hired in the last 12 months — and boasts a high level of longevity for its employees, an average tenure of 12 years for hourly workers and whopping 17 years for salaried people. That includes 10 families where three or more family members have worked at Hoffer.

Clearly, it’s a good place to work, beyond the paycheck. Hoffer claims to be the first U.S. injection molder to develop an apprenticeship program. And executives have genuine concern for employees, like the time Bob Hoffer paid for an employee’s furnace that went out and when he financed the college education of the daughter of a key employee who had died. Last year, as part of a regular adopt-a-family program, Hoffer Plastics ended up hiring a couple who had both been laid off from their jobs.

To Hoffer Plastics management and employees, it all goes along with being a family-owned business and community leader.

It began in 1953 when Robert Hoffer, a chemist who worked for DuPont Co. and GE Plastics, teamed with the owners of an Ohio molder, Nylon Molded Products, to start Hoffer Plastics with a used injection press molding twist sticks for roll-on deodorant. His wife, Helen, was right by his side, and the husband-and-wife team personally made 250,000 of the sticks. Bob and Helen soon bought out the other owners and some big customers signed up, such as Illinois Tool Works Inc. and Seaquist Closures, both of which remain customers today, according to the company’s award submission.

Hoffer Plastics has been a major contributor to the National Plastics Center, home of the Plastics Hall of Fame, which Robert Hoffer entered in 1997. He donated money to equip the first PlastiVan, a move followed by other industry icons. He also was chairman of the first board of trustees at Elgin Community College, and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his alma mater, Purdue University.

The Hoffer Foundation, created in 1966, has donated millions of dollars over the years.

Robert Hoffer died in 2007. But his legacy lives on. One major innovation, called the focused-factory, has been studied for years by smaller molders. As Hoffer Plastics grew, he set up separate profit centers, run like a small company, each one with no more than 12 molding presses. It’s easier to keep track of 12 machines than 50 or 100, he reasoned.

Hoffer Plastics executives also pump money back into the business. During the past four years, Hoffer has invested $15 million in new technology, such as gas-assisted injection molding, MuCell technology and RJG eDart, while beefing up its two-shot molding and post-molding and assembly operations.

The top-three customers have remained with Hoffer 30-plus years. Briggs & Stratton Corp. named Hoffer as its Innovative Supplier of the Year for 2012.

Hoffer was self-nominated for the award by Charlotte Canning, its marketing director.

Rodon Group LLC

Everybody knows K’Nex toys, the interlocking construction rods and fittings that graced many a Christmas tree Dec. 25. Toys made in the U.S.A., not China! President Barack Obama visited the K’Nex plant outside of Philadelphia on Nov. 30 to pitch his fiscal-cliff tax proposals.

The news stories were full of K’Nex, but not Rodon Group, the custom injection molder that started it all. Rodon officials are used to that. But Rodon, one of the most automated molders in the United States, is not a secret to the plastics industry. Last year, the company was a finalist for the Processor of the Year Award. Now the company is back in the finalist circle.

At Rodon, one operator runs 15 injection molding machines. Rodon and K’Nex, which operate out of separate buildings a few miles apart, employ 170. At the Rodon plant in Hatfield, 106 highly automated injection presses crank out parts for consumer products, medical and pharmaceutical items, point-of-purchase displays and, of course K’Nex toys. Eight of those presses, or almost one in five, are equipped with a vision system that checks every single part. Rodon invested in vision inspection a few years ago at the request of customers in higher-end food and medical markets.

The result? Customers have accepted more than 99 percent of parts for the past six years

Now Lowell Allen, senior vice president of manufacturing, said Rodon has ordered one of the new Baxter robots from Rethink Robotics Inc. that can do factory jobs like remove different-sized parts from a conveyor and pack them.

Rodon makes all its own molds.

Rodon generated 2012 sales of $24.1 million. That’s a marginal increase from 2011, but it reflects a 9.5 percent gain if you exclude molded-part sales to K’Nex, which accounts for about one-third of Rodon’s total molding business. Stable sales reflect a molder with a strong core of customers, one built on profitable, efficient operations.

Each year, billions of small, precision parts come out of the Rodon factory, which has been featured on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels television show.

Rodon and K’Nex trumpet the strength of U.S. manufacturing. Rodon’s motto is “We Beat China Pricing.”

The company has launched the American Entrepreneur Program, to promote the molding industry’s role in low-cost domestic manufacturing for people with product ideas. For a fee Rodon will help them with design, prints, rapid prototyping and other services.

Both firms are active in the American Trade Matters trade group, and President and CEO Michael Araten became a board member in early 2012.

Rodon, founded in 1956 by Irving Glickman, is a third-generation family-owned business. Glickman had helped develop synthetic rubber during World War II, then joined with a partner to start a rubber company. Glickman recognized the potential of plastics, and they started Rodon. He was 100 years old when he died Nov. 19, 2012.

Inspiration struck in 1990, when his son, Joel Glickman, invented the toy that would become K’Nex. Joel wanted to have Rodon mold the parts for big toy makers like Hasbro and Mattel, but they weren’t interested. So Rodon molded the parts and got into the toy business.

Araten, Joel Glickman’s son-in-law, is a vocal advocate for U.S. manufacturing. “So many people are used to toys from overseas that they don’t even consider that these products may be manufactured not just in the United States, but in their own backyard,” he said. “That is the perception that we’re hoping to change.”

Rodon scored high marks in all seven categories.

Customers said the molder is responsive and lean, so there’s no need to wade through layers of bureaucracy to solve problems. Rodon molds high-quality products at a competitive price, they said.

For employee relations, one set of numbers says it all: An average of 14 years of Rodon experience for all employees; 20 years for all managers.

Rodon also does its part for “green” manufacturing, using returnable containers and using all of its own regrind. Sustainable Waste Solutions LLC has designated Rodon a landfill-free facility.

Rodon was nominated by Adam Paulson, district manager of Chase Plastic Services Inc. in Clarkston, Mich.